Chpater 1. Early Days: From Theology in Seminaries to Non-sectarian Religious Studies
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1 Chapter 1 EARLY DAYS From Theology in Seminaries to Non-sectarian Religious Studies religion was important in the early history of many Canadian universities and colleges, and has continued to make an important contribution. Early on, seminaries were established to teach ministers and full-time church workers the doctrines and practices of their denominations. Christianity was assumed to be the one true religion, and the denominational formulation of Christian doctrine was regarded as authoritative. Seminaries, together with their residences, were frequently connected to universities, and a seminary degree was usually given the status of a university degree. A few general religion courses, taught by seminary staff, were offered for arts and science students. For example, as an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Alberta in the 1950s, I took a course in Biblical Literature offered by the New Testament professor at St. Stephen’s College, the United Church seminary for the province. Growing up in the southern Alberta cities of Calgary and Lethbridge, I was surrounded by Blackfoot and Stoney reserves, and went to school with Mormons and Japanese Canadian Buddhists, so from an early age I was curious about other religions, including the Aboriginal traditions. But seminaries and theology departments were almost exclusively interested in the Christian tradition. One positive outcome of this intense focus on Christianity was that the Biblical Literature course, which I took in the early 1950s, was taught with solid academic rigour using the best social science and humanities methods of study. By introducing me to the academic study of the Bible (with lower and higher criticism), the undergraduate biblical literature course in the Faculty of Arts awakened my nascent interest in the further study of 2 Chapter 1 religion, including religions other than Christianity. And that is what I did. After completing B.A. and M.A. degrees in psychology, and working as a vocational counsellor for three years, I entered St. Stephen’s College, completed seminary studies, was ordained by the United Church of Canada, and served the Blairmore, Alberta, pastoral charge for five years before entering the McMaster University Ph.D. program in world religions. When seminary professors offered courses such as Biblical Literature or Church History in the arts and science program, many university faculty suspected them of bias, anti-intellectualism, and proselytism. Whether these concerns were justified or not, it is true that the seminaries, in their teaching of future ministers, held their own tradition to be the one true religion, and therefore were much less interested in religion in general. Around 1960, a broad distinction was made within universities between theological and liberal arts studies in religion. Whereas the theological approach “taught religion,” the liberal arts approach was “about religion” and it included a comparative study of different religious traditions. This latter approach provided the philosophical prerequisite for new departments of religious studies at McMaster University (1965), McGill (1970), Sir George Williams University (Concordia, 1972), Ottawa (1965), Carleton, and the University of British Columbia (1964) located in faculties of arts and science. A comparative and interdisciplinary approach was taken to religious studies with an attempt to balance Eastern and Western traditions. During the 1960s, other Canadian universities were embracing this new approach and establishing religious studies departments in arts and science faculties, including Memorial (1968), Manitoba (1968), Winnipeg (1966), Regina (1969), Alberta (1967), Brandon (1966), and Université du Québec à Montréal (1969). While my own view is that the academic study of theology is not necessarily closed, narrow, and doctrinaire, especially in the early years, it was important for the new field of religious studies to separate and distance itself from theology (and the church) and present a new approach suitable for study in arts or humanities faculties—an approach characterized as open, critical, and inclusive of the full range of major religions, including the Aboriginal traditions. All of this had been prefigured by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who to my mind should be regarded as the “father” of religious studies in Canada. An historian of religion and an Islamic specialist, Smith, in 1951, organized the Islamic Institute at McGill University to foster academic inter-religious dialogue . Smith’s strategy was to have teachers and students of Islam and other religions share their understandings of each other’s personal faith experience in a setting of mutuality, trust, respect, and equality. Smith’s thesis, developed at the Islamic Institute, is that a new mode for humane knowledge is Early Days 3 demonstrated...


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Subject Headings

  • Religion--Study and teaching (Higher)--Canada--History--20th century.
  • Theology--Study and teaching (Higher)--Canada--History--20th century.
  • Universities and colleges--Curricula--Canada--History--20th century.
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